Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

Trading Principles

Beginners learn the relative values of the pieces early in their chess studies and use those values to calculate the outcome of material exchanges (trading pieces). While using this numerical method can help a player avoid losing an exchange of material, it cannot be the sole basis for determining whether or not an exchange will be advantageous. Solely using the relative value system to determine the success of an exchange is akin to occupying only two dimensions in a three dimensional world. You’re going to miss something important and in chess missing something important leads to lost games! Players must see the bigger picture before considering exchanging material.

Obviously, we want to compare the relative value of both our pieces and those of our opponent before considering an exchange of material. Beginners are taught that trading a Queen for a Knight would be a bad trade since the Queen is worth nine points and the Knight three. Trading our Queen for a Knight would mean the net loss of six points which equals two minor pieces or six pawns. However, what if giving up the Queen for a Knight led to checkmate? We’ve all played through the games of Paul Morphy in which he sacrificed a major piece (or two) to win the game. Unfortunately, the average beginner doesn’t have the calculation skills to successfully sacrifice material. Fortunately, there are some trading principles the beginner can employ to help improve their position and lay the groundwork for good calculative thinking.

Here are some ideas to employ when considering an exchange of pieces. Applying these ideas will make a huge difference in your game. Again, its about seeing the bigger picture which means considering the entire position on the chessboard. Is the position open or closed? Are you ahead in material or behind? Are your pieces cramped or free to roam around the board? Are you under positional pressure? Is your opponent threatening checkmate? Positional questions must be asked before considering any exchange of material.

Consider a trade or exchange when you are ahead in material. While this might seem counter-intuitive, since beginners are taught to maintain as much material as possible, the more you trade down when ahead in material, the greater your advantage becomes later on. Both players start out with eight pawns each so both players have an equal number of pawns. Let’s say you and your opponent start trading pawns and reach an endgame position in which you have two pawns to your opponent’s one pawn. You have a much greater advantage since you have twice as many pawns. Of course, this is an extremely simplified example but the idea still holds true. Material advantages become greater or more pronounced as pawns and pieces are traded off the board. Always think about this idea as you approach the endgame. Good chess players think about the future as well as the present! Don’t live solely in the moment!

If you have a spacial disadvantage, where your position is cramped, trade pieces to open up the position. If your opponent has greater control of the board, leaving you stuck in a cramped defensive position, consider trading material to give yourself some room to move. However, you have to be careful in regards to what material you trade. If you’re in an open game, a game in which there is a lot of open space between you and your opponent, consider hanging on to long distance pieces such as the Bishops and exchanging Knights. In a closed position, your Knights should be kept. Of course, you must always consider the value of your material and your opponent’s material before starting any exchange. If you have the spacial advantage, keep applying pressure by controlling more space and avoid trading material.

Consider an exchange if doing so allows one of your remaining pieces to become more active. If you find yourself in a closed position, Knights are going to be more powerful because of their ability to jump over other pieces. If your opponent has an active Knight that you can exchange for a bad Bishop (a Bishop that has little mobility), consider the trade. While both the Knight and Bishop have the same relative value, meaning an equal trade will garner both players three points of exchanged material, a trapped or immobile Bishop really isn’t in the game when the position is closed. The Knight, on the other hand, is able to jump over the positional traffic jam which means it is in the game and has greater value.

If your opponent has an powerful piece that is stopping you from executing your plan, consider forcing an exchange. A Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black, protects the h2 or h7 pawn when a player has Castled on the King-side. That Knight is a critical defender. Removing that defender leaves only the King to defend either the h2 or h7 pawn. When I say powerful piece, most beginners think of the Queen or Rook. However, we have to look at a piece’s value in relationship to the position. A pawn about to promote is extremely powerful. It might have a relative value of one but because it is about to promote, it’s value increase. Relative value is not absolute value.

When considering any trade, a player must look far beyond the relative value of the pawns and pieces. Its the relationship to a position that determines a pawn or piece’s value. Often we find ourselves under pressure in a position. A potential checkmate may be looming on the positional horizon. Trading pieces may reduce that pressure enough to stop the threat of checkmate. Always ask yourself, “am I under pressure and is there an exchange that will relieve some of that pressure.

Lastly, never, ever exchange material just to exchange. Good chess players capture or exchange pieces to improve their position. I love to capture pawns and pieces but I don’t do so unless I get something more than mere material for my efforts. I need my position to improve when I exchange pieces! Trade smart by looking at all your options. Speaking of trading, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Endgame Checklist

Most beginning players never get to the endgame because they’re defeated in the middle-game. When they do get into the endgame, they don’t know what to do with the small amount of material they have left on the board. A beginner once told me that he felt the endgame to be easier than the middle-game because you didn’t have to deal with so many pawns and pieces. The opposite is true. With fewer pawns and pieces on the board, there is no recovering from a single bad move. I give a list out to my students before we start our endgame studies so they know what they need to do to be successful during this game phase. Here are a few key points from my endgame list:

Get your King into the game! The King needs to be active during the endgame. We spend the opening and middle-game ensuring our King’s safety. We don’t dare bring our King out into the open when there are large numbers of enemy pawns and pieces within attacking range. However, when the majority of both side’s pawns and pieces are off the board, the King can become an active attacker or defender. A piece doing nothing is a piece not in the game. This holds true for the King as well. Activate your King. Leaving your King on it’s starting rank in the endgame invites danger!

Always push a passed pawn! A passed pawn is a pawn that has no opposing pawns to stop it from reaching its promotion square. If you create a passed pawn, its your job to get that pawn to its promotion square. This means that you’ll have to use any available force to protect that pawn. If you don’t have the passed pawn, you’ll want to do everything you can to stop your opponent’s passed pawn from promoting. This means using your available material to stop the pawn from promoting by capture or blockading. If you were down to an endgame with only pawns and Kings, you’d need to bring the King into the game to aid in either the promotion of your pawn or stopping the promotion of an opposition pawn.

If you’re ahead a pawn, trade pieces not pawns in the endgame and if you’re not ahead a pawn trade pawns rather than pieces, aiming for a draw. Beginners think that pawns are expendable because they’re plentiful and lowest in relative value. The beginner often concludes that he or she can lose a few pawns during the game. However, every pawn you lose is one less pawn in the endgame which is one less chance to promote. Pawn endings can be easier to win compared to an endgame position with pawns and pieces still on the board. Simplify in the endgame, reducing the material to pawns and Kings.

Pawns do not belong on the same color squares as your Bishop. So if you have a light squared Bishop in the endgame, your pawns should be on dark squares. Why? The answer has to do with mobility. In the endgame, there is generally little material left on the board. This means that every pawn and piece must be as active as possible. If you have a light squared Bishop in the endgame, every pawn on a light square denies that Bishop a bit of mobility. A lack of mobility translates to an inactive piece. With little material on the board, activity and mobility wins endgames.

Bishops are better than Knights in all but blocked pawn endgames. The Bishop is a long distance piece, meaning it can move from one side of the board to the other in a single move. The Knight, on the other hand, is a short distance piece who takes a lot longer to cross the board. Of course, the Bishop is of little use if it is blocked in by its own pawns. Thus, why you want to keep your pawns off of the same color squares your Bishop travels on. In general, long distance attackers, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen are beneficial in the endgame.

Activate your Rooks. A Rook is useless unless its in the game. Get a Rook on the seventh rank if playing the White pieces or the second rank if playing the Black pieces. A Rook on a rank occupied by pawns can do a great deal of damage. Remember, the more pawns you have in the endgame, the greater the chance of promoting one of them. A Rook on a rank full of pawns is like a hungry fox in a hen house. If you’re attacking your opponent is defending and may not be able to protect all of his or her pawns. All beginners learn Rook checkmates but often think that is all the Rook is useful for. Rooks can be used to go after pawns, reducing your opponent’s chances of promotion. In the endgame, everyone (pawns and pieces) must play aggressively.

Speaking of Rooks! Rooks belong behind passed pawns. We know that pawn promotion is key in the endgame. However, to get a pawn to its promotion square, it needs a bodyguard. Why does it need a bodyguard? If you have a passed pawn your opponent is going to do everything possible to stop it from promoting. The Rook makes an excellent bodyguard because it can protect the pawn from the other side of the board. If your opponent possesses the passed pawn, your Rook still belongs behind it, threatening the potential promotion. You Rook should not be in front of the passed enemy pawn because with each move of the pawn, your Rook loses some of its mobility. It is better to blockade with another piece such as a Knight or, in the case of my next checklist item, the King.

When facing an opponent’s passed pawn, we have to block that pawn’s access to its promotion square. This means playing defensively rather than offensively. Playing defensively, in this example, means tying up a piece to create a blockade. If given the choice of blocking the passed pawn with your King or Knight, you might consider the King. Why? You King cannot attack your opponent’s King but your Knight can. The piece blockading the passed pawn should be the piece who has the lessor of attacking abilities. Because Rooks can be employed so aggressively in the endgame, they shouldn’t be used to block a passed pawn.

The lesson to be learned here is that pawns are critical in the endgame and should be handled with care from the game’s start. Don’t give away pawns early on unless necessary. Save them for the endgame. Rooks can be great assets in the endgame, making excellent bodyguards for passed pawns. Everyone needs to participate in the endgame, including the King. Simplify the material. Piece activity and mobility win endgames. If you’re new to the game, I recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s book, Pandolfini’s Endgame Course. That’s where I learned all of this. Here’s a game to play though until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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The Best Defense is a Counterattack

Often, the beginner finds himself (or herself) having to constantly defend a series of positions when playing a stronger or more aggressive opponent. Beginners are apt to be either the aggressive or passive player (defender) during their games and tend to end up on the defensive (passive) side more often than not. They (the beginner) see attacking and defending in a very black and white manner. By this, I mean that the beginner will only consider absolutely defensive moves when under attack or aggressive moves when leading an attack. Countless times, I’ve seen beginners end up with terrible middle-game positions because their opponent launches attack after attack, leaving the novice stuck, having to defend their King with awkward pawn and piece play. This comes about because the beginner panics, moving the attacked piece or only making moves that defend against the opposition’s attacking pieces, not considering the possibility of a counterattack or potential threat.

Much of my own game knowledge comes from studying the teachings of Australia’s own late great C.J.S. Purdy. Cecil Purdy had an amazing talent not only for playing the game of chess but teaching it as well. He (along with Reuben Fine and many others) were proponents of two crucial ideas, developing with a threat and the use of counterattacks as a method for switching one’s role in the game from defender to attacker. The employment of just these two concepts alone will help the beginner step out of the shadow of poor defensive play and into the bright lights of aggressive play. While the two players of a game of chess take on one of these two roles during their game (attacker or defender), it doesn’t mean that they are stuck being the attacker or defender throughout the entire game. Beginners think that once they get stuck defending they’ll remain defenders until their opponent concludes his or her attack. In reality, the tables can be turned on the attacker with a good threat or counterattack. Just because you have to defend a position doesn’t mean that you can’t make a move that suddenly puts your opponent on the defensive.

When the beginning chess player is on the receiving end of a threat, they tend to panic. The beginner gloomily stares at the position and thinks of two options. The first is to flee the scene of the crime by moving the piece being attacked. The second option is to further defend the piece under attack. While there is basically nothing wrong with either of these ideas, the beginner limits themselves in regard to options. In chess, the more options you have, the better off you are! Good players will look at an additional option, creating a bigger threat! If your opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn you might consider moving that minor piece. However, moving that minor piece might reduce the number of defenders of one of your key central squares or pieces under attack. What if you could move one of your pawns to a square where it attacks an opposition Rook? Your minor piece is worth three points while your opponent’s Rook is worth five points. From a material value viewpoint, your threat is bigger so your opponent will have to move their Rook, hopefully damaging their position in doing so. You opponent will have to deal with your threat before continuing with his or her own threat. The employment of a threat can turn the defender into the aggressor. If your opponent makes a threat, see if you can make a bigger threat. Turn the tables on the attacker. Big threats beat out smaller threats. However, don’t make threats that further undermine your own position!

Therefore, before turning tail and running off to a safer square or locking up one of your pawns or pieces in the defense of your attacked piece, look for a threat. Threats can be absolute game changers! Creating a threat limits your opponent’s choices and thus their plans. A threat can force your opponent to change their game plan costing them tempo or weakening their position. Look for a threat before considering moving the attacked piece or adding additional defenders to the position.

Both Purdy and Fine said that the best defense is a counter attack and this holds true in most cases. When a beginner launches an attack, they often do so while suffering from tunnel vision. This means that they are focused on a small section of the board, the area where the attack takes place, rather than the entire board. When launching their attack, they are considering the pawns and pieces in the immediate vicinity of the attack. I’ve seen a plethora of beginners fall victim to back rank checkmates because their field of vision doesn’t extend throughout the board. A lack of total board vision allows for strong counter attacks. Look at the entire board and ask yourself “can I launch a counterattack that poses a bigger threat because my opponent missed something (a weakness of their position) due to tunnel vision?”

Again, the beginner panics when a piece comes under fire and first thinks about fleeing the scene of the crime or, if this isn’t possible, adding defenders to the position. The problem with moving the attacked piece out of the line of fire is that in doing so, you can weaken your position. If you’re playing Black, have castled King-side and have a Knight on f6, that Knight is a crucial defender of the h7 pawn. If White has their Queen on d3 and the light squared Bishop on c2, with the b1-h7 diagonal clear of pawns and pieces, the f6 Knight is a critical defender of h7. If the Black Knight flees the f7 square, checkmate (by White) will quickly follow. What should Black do if it looks like White is starting to build up an attack against the poor beleaguered Knight? Consider a counterattack. Of course, in the above example, you’ll want to first look for ways to support the Knight.

You’ll see, especially in the games of beginners, one player focusing all his or her efforts on an early attack. Good chess players build up a position and only after their pawns and pieces have been developed to their most active squares, do they launch an attack. Beginners, on the other hand, launch into attacks at the first chance they get. Because these attacks are premature, they usually amount to not much more than a weakening of the attacker’s position. Rather than fleeing or defending against the premature attack, weakening your position in the process, look to see if a counter attack can be employed.

When the beginner launches into an attack, they leave weak spots in their own defense. After all, those pieces used for the attack have been relieved from their defensive duties to launch the attack, meaning there are less defenders on the attacker’s side of the board. This can present an opportunity. Before considering piling up defenders around your attacked piece or fleeing, look for holes your opponent’s position, noting which pawn, piece or square near the opposition’s King has been weakened as a result of your opponent’s attack. Your opponent’s pawns and pieces are lined up for an attack against your position so they may not be on the best squares to suddenly defend their side of the board when hit with a counterattack. The novice tends to throw everything into an attack which means that their defense is neglected. This is the time to launch a counterattack.

When facing an attack, don’t automatically assume that you have to move the attacked piece. The price the attacker pays for launching an attack, especially a premature attack, is often a weakness in their own position. If you don’t panic and use complete board vision (seeing the entire board), you’ll see that weakness. By employing a counterattack or threat, you can gain the upper hand in which case the hunter becomes the hunted. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Middlegame Planning

Once the beginner has a grasp of the opening principles and some basic endgame knowledge, they often feel confident that their chess has improved enough to start winning games. However, they often run into trouble during the phase that comes after the opening and before the endgame, the middlegame! The middlegame generally starts after both players have connected their rooks, which means moving the Queen up a rank or two, allowing the Rooks to patrol along their starting rank. Planning in the middle game can be difficult because both players have no concrete information regarding what pawns and pieces will be remaining on the board when this middle phase starts. So how do we formulate a plan? There are five points to consider when creating a middlegame plan.

The first point to consider is material. Before starting your plan, ask yourself if you’re ahead or behind in material. To determine where you stand, count both your material and your opponent’s material, noting who is ahead or behind. The player who is ahead in material will generally plan to trade or exchange material with their opponent to reduce that opponent’s counterplay. So, if you’re ahead in material you might consider a series of exchanges that will further reduce your opponent’s ability to fight back. If you’re behind in material, your opponent having more pawns and pieces than you have, you’ll want to avoid those trades in order to maintain some force on the board. If you have less material than your opponent, you need to hang on to what you have.

Pawn structure is the next consideration. I constantly tell my students that good pawn structure must be maintained throughout the game, starting from their first few moves. Look at the board and note how the pawns are positioned for both sides. You’ll want to note any doubled, isolated or backwards pawns. If you have any of these dreadful pawn problems, you need to look for a way to rectify these issues. However, don’t move on to the next planning point until you ask yourself, “is there any way I can give my opponent doubled, isolated or backwards pawns?” These types of pawns lose their mobility and effectiveness which takes away their ability to be useful during the game. If your opponent’s pawn structure can be damage, you may want to consider moves that create problem pawns and the subsequent damage they bring with them.

Our next point to consider is mobility. Mobility is a key factor in all three phases of the game. How active are your pawns and pieces? Too often, beginners develop their minor pieces early on and then stop overall pawn and piece development to launch a premature attack. Pieces that have better mobility have greater control of the board. Greater board control makes for better attacks. Look at every pawn and piece and determine whether or not it is on its most active square. Don’t simply look at your pawns and pieces. Look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Note what squares they control and then compare them to your own pawns and pieces. Before asking yourself “what can I do to increase my pawn and piece activity,” determine what your opponent can do to improve his or her pawn and piece activity. Can you slow down their control of the board with a specific move? Beginners tend to think in terms of what their best move is without considering their opponent’s best potential move. It takes two to play a game of chess. Only considering one player’s position, namely yours, will lead to lost games.

King safety is next. I mentioned in my last article that castling should be delayed, if possible, in favor of greater development. However, King safety always trumps development if a possible checkmate by the opposition is in the air. Ask yourself whose King is safer. If your King isn’t safe then castling and a good defense should be considered. If your King is safe and you’re considering an attack against the enemy King, it’s time to look at your opponent’s position, namely the pawns and pieces protecting the opposition King. Can you weaken the position? How long will doing so take? However, you better first take a look at your own pawns and pieces surrounding your King, determining if you opponent can do likewise.

Lastly we must look at threats. Beginners have a bad habit of launching attacks when their position is under threat. A threat assessment must be made before formulating a plan of action. Before considering any threats you can make, ask yourself “what are my opponent’s threats?” Look carefully at all of your opponent’s pawns and pieces and examine what those pawns and pieces can do on the opposition’s next move as well as the following move. A good threat can force pawns and pieces into defensive rather than offensive positions, which help with a potential attack by the aggressor!

Now that you’ve gone through the planning checklist list, its time to think about a plan. During the middle-game, positions can drastically change from move to move. This means that plans should be flexible and short term. By flexible, I mean plans that have the ability to change fluidly as the board’s position changes. Therefore, long term plans are too stodgy and lack flexibility. Make plans that address the next few moves rather than the next ten moves.

Plans must have a specific short term goal. While this might seem to contradict the idea of a flexible plan, you don’t want to try and do everything at once. Don’t think in terms of doing too much at once or you’ll lose the game. Your plan should consist of simpler, short term goals, such as reducing the mobility of a single piece, the isolation of a pawn or the weakening of a key pawn or piece (or even square) that supports the enemy King. Keep your plans short term during the middlegame and consider the five points discussed above. Keep it simple. Play for flexibility and fluidity during the middlegame. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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When to Castle

One mistake that beginners often make is not castling their King to safety. Leaving your King exposed on a central file makes it easier for your opponent to launch a successful attack that leads to mate. This is why beginners are encouraged to castle their King to safety early in the game. However, beginners often take the idea of castling early literally and castle as soon as possible which can create problems later on. While King safety is crucial, the beginner can castle too early, ignoring further piece development and end up in a positional bind. So when should the beginner castle?

Before learning when to castle, the beginner should fully know the rules of castling which are fairly simple. To castle there have to be no pieces between the King and the Rook on the side you’re castling on. Thus, on the King-side, you have to move the King-side Knight and Bishop off of their starting squares prior to castling. On the Queen-side, you have to move the Queen-side Knight, Bishop and Queen off of their starting squares. This means you have to develop two minor pieces on the King-side prior to castling or two minor pieces plus the Queen on the Queen-side prior to castling (on that side of the board). You cannot move your King prior to castling, If you do, you can’t castle at all. If you move a Rook prior to castling, you cannot castle on that side of the board. Move both Rooks prior to castling and you’re out of luck (no castling for you). You cannot castle if you’re in check. Lastly, you cannot move your King through or onto a square controlled by an opposition pawn or piece. Looking at this list of requirements, you can see why beginners often panic and castle at the first chance they get!

One important idea, often lost on the beginner, is the idea of Rook activation. I see so many of my beginning students activate their minor pieces to decent squares during the opening and middle games only to ignore their Rooks throughout the entire game. Castling allows you to do two important things. The first is getting your King to safety. The second, which is extremely important, is to activate one of your Rooks. Rooks who sit on their starting squares are inactive pieces. The player with the most active pieces usually has an easier time controlling and subsequently winning the game. Moves that allow you to do two good things at the same time are the type of moves you want to make.

While castling is crucial, timing is everything. During the opening game, both players are fighting to control the center of the board. The only way to dominate or at least equalize control of the board’s center is to carefully but rapidly deploy your pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the greatest amount of centralized board space. Therefore, before castling, beginners should ask themselves two questions.

The first question: Is my King in present or future danger? Present danger means that it’s your turn, your opponent’s pieces are in attack formation and ready to start checking your King immediately. If so, castling is a good idea. When I say future danger, I mean that an attack on your King is possible during the next one or two opposition moves. Advanced players have a bit more leeway regarding future danger and just when to castle. Future danger translates to “ within the next few moves can my opponent’s pieces attack my King, either forcing it to move, in which case my King loses the right to castle, or force me to weaken my position when I have to defend the King?” Of course, a potential immediate checkmate from the opposition within the next few moves should prompt you to castle if doing so saves the King! If the answer to this question is yes, then castle your King!

If you answered “no” to the first question, then its time to ask the second question, “are my pawns and pieces developed enough to control the board’s center more so than my opponent’s pawns and pieces? Most beginners consider castling before completing their development so the answer to this question is almost always “no.” Time to look at your development.

Many beginners learn the Italian Opening because it provides a relatively clear example of the game’s opening principles. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…Bc5, both players can castle on the King-side. This is where beginners get into trouble. They’ve been told by their chess instructors or by reading beginner’s books that you should castle early. Beginner’s take things literally, which often inspires them to castle as early as move four in the above opening move sequence. However, the opening is a fight for territorial control and the player that has it has a greater advantage. Advantages, both big and small, win games.

If your King is in no immediate danger, further development is in order. Keep developing pieces to active squares in order to shut down your opponent’s chance at staking a claim to those very same squares. In the opening, it’s all about the center. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces on one side of your King is certainly no reason to ignore the pieces on his majesty’s other side. Keep bringing those remaining minor pieces into the game. Pieces on their starting squares are not in the game. Those pieces are inactive and activity is the name of the opening game.

Then there’s the question of which side of the board to castle on. Beginners tend to castle King-side because its easier since you don’t have an additional piece to move (the Queen). However, Queen-side castling can be extremely effective. Why would you castle Queen-side? Here’s a good reason: If your opponent has aimed his or her forces at your King-side, castling there is going to put your King directly in the line of fire. Castling on the opposite side of the attack will force your opponent to redirect his or her pieces, which has a price. That price is tempo or time (wasting it). While your opponent is redirecting pieces, you can be strengthening your position or building up an attack against your opponent’s King. Don’t make your opponent’s job easier by castling into an attack or potential attack!

The next time you consider castling, ask yourself those two questions before doing so. If your do, you’ll know if you’re castling at the right time. Castling too early can make a position worse. Castling too late will send your King to an early grave. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Notice how White finds a great way to solve a potential positional problem by castling!

Hugh Patterson

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Getting Ready for the Chess Club

Parents want their children to get the most out of their educational experience, be it learning about science, music or chess. Many parents have no problem investing in educational DVDs or books to aid in their child’s education or employing a tutor. However, when it comes to chess, many parents send their children to chess classes or clubs with no knowledge of the game’s rules. This can be a problem if the rest of the class already knows how to play. The child who doesn’t know the rules can feel awkward and can easily lose interest in the game. Therefore, parents who want their children to get the most out of their chess class or club should do a little preparation, namely teaching their children the basic rules of the game. Doing so will go a long way to ensuring that a child have a positive experience with chess.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that measures success on how quickly a job can be done, leaving quality of workmanship out of the equation. For example, someone wanting to learn a musical instrument is more likely drawn to a learning program that offers fast results. However, you can only get better at playing a musical instrument through hard work and practice. The same holds true for chess. This doesn’t mean that your child has to spend hours every day slaving away over the chessboard. It does mean that you cannot expect instant results upon enrolling your child in a chess class or club. You have to be patient. Here are some suggestions that will help children entering chess class for the first time:

Before enrolling them in a class, teach your child how the pieces move. This will help them immensely. In my classes, we spend the first half of the class learning about a specific concept or idea and spend the second half of the class playing chess to test out our newly acquired knowledge. Since most of my classes are a mix of skill levels, the lessons will be geared towards students who at least know how the pieces move. Teaching your child how the pieces move will help them tenfold during their lessons.

You should teach piece movement in a specific order, starting with the pawns. Have them learn how the pawns move, forward, and how they capture, diagonally. Of course, you’ll want to make sure they understand that a pawn can move one or two squares forward on their first move but only a square at a time after that initial move. Have them play with only pawns (the pawn game) on the board until they have mastered pawn movement. Don’t worry about pawn promotion yet. This concept should be taught after the child understands how the pieces move. Then move onto the Rook which moves up and down the board (along the files) and left and right (along the ranks). Rooks capture in the same way they move, a point that must be made to the young student. Have them play Rook against pawns, with you, the parent, moving the pawns and your child moving the Rook. The goal for the child is to capture as many pawns as possible without having their Rook captured by a pawn. Next move on to the Bishops. Here, you have to emphasize that each Bishop is only allowed to travel diagonally on squares of the same color the Bishop started out on. The dark squared Bishop can only travel along dark squares while the light squared Bishop can only travel along light squares. Bishops capture the same way they move. Play a game of pawns against both Bishops with your child trying to capture enemy pawns with the two Bishops while avoiding the loss of those Bishops to the pawns. Tackle the Queen next, reinforcing the idea that the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop. The Queen also captures the same way as she moves. Play pawns against Queen, with the Queen trying to capture the enemy pawns while avoiding capture herself. At this point, you can introduce the idea of pawn promotion. Play the pawn game again. However, if a pawn makes it all the way across the board, it turns into a Queen. Mention that the pawn can also promote into a Rook, Knight or Bishop.

Next, teach the movement of the King, which is the same as the Queen, except the King can only move a single square at a time. Kings capture the same way in which they move. Reinforce the difference between the King and the Queen. Also start talking about how crucial it is to protect the King at all times. Play a game of pawns against the King. Don’t introduce check and checkmate yet. However, do introduce the idea that if the King is attacked, he must stop the attack by either capturing the attacking piece or moving. Reinforce the idea that the King cannot be captured! Wait until piece movement has been master before introducing additional game rules.

Only after the child can confidently and legally move the above mentioned pieces should you move onto the Knight. The Knight moves in an “L” shape which is unique. The other pieces move in a linear fashion, in straight lines along the board’s ranks, files and diagonals. The Knight, on the other hand, moves two squares in one direction and then one square either to the left or right. In short, the “L” that the Knight makes when moving is three squares tall and two squares wide. Knights capture the same way they move. Play a game of Knight against pawns.

The longer a period of time you spend with your children, teaching them how the pieces move, the better their playing experience will be. Children should learn how to move one piece at a time, only moving on to the next piece after they have master the piece in question. Don’t set a time limit on these mini lessons. Let your child take as much time as they need to master each piece. Only after they fully understand how each piece moves should you consider having them playing with all the pieces at once. Otherwise, the child will become confused, mixing up the movement of one piece with another. You don’t have to put a great deal of time into these lessons. In fact, with younger children, you might want to start with fifteen minutes per day. Again, don’t move to the next piece until your child masters the piece being worked with. It might take them nine months to master piece movement but they’ll do much better in their chess class or club knowing how the pawns and pieces move. Always have them use the piece they’re learning about against pawns, as in the pawn game, because simply moving a piece around an empty board can be boring. Also try, playing pieces against pieces. So instead of playing a pair of Bishops against enemy pawns, play a pair of Bishops against a pair of Bishops. The longer you spend on piece movement, the better the end results will be in the long run. As parents, your commitment to your child’s chess education determines what your child gets out of chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These gentlemen know how to move their pieces!

Hugh Patterson

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What to Expect From Children

Inevitably, parents ask me how their children are doing with their chess playing at some point during the semester. Its a simple enough question. After all, the parent has signed their child up for one of my chess classes and wants a progress report. However, parents often feel that their child should be making greater progress than they actually are. This is because most parents have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their child’s ability to learn something outside of the normal school curriculum. Rather than comparing the study of chess to the study of music, which requires a great deal of dedication and practice, most parents think of chess as a mere board game akin to Monopoly. Thinking of chess as a simple game sets the parent up to think that it can be learned and mastered in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, a parent thinking in these terms will expect their child to quickly learn a game that in reality can take many lifetimes to master.

Parents enrolling their children in a chess class or club should do a little research regarding what to expect from both their children and the person(s) teaching the class or running the club. Of course, parents have the right to think that their child is exceptional. After all, we’re all proud of our offspring! However, we should always maintain realistic expectations when it comes to our children’s learning experiences for both their sake and ours!

A crucial idea to consider is that children learn slowly. While some youngsters learn subjects more quickly than others in their peer group, the majority of children learn at a slower pace. This means that both parents and instructors alike must exercise patience. I had one of my young instructors comment that his students were three weeks into their chess lessons and they still hadn’t fully grasped the idea of developing their pieces towards the board’s center. His students were 1st and 2nd graders, new to the the game, so it will take them a while to understand and employ basic opening principles, not to mention how the pieces move. Patience is key!

How do we, as chess instructors, help young students understand important concepts? Through repetition and reinforcement. In the opening phase of the game, students have to develop their pawns and pieces towards the center of the board. Children learn this concept of good development repetitively. Good opening moves are practiced over and and over again until the concept of centralized material development is etched into their thought process. However, I’m not talking about merely memorizing moves! When I say “repetitive,” I’m also talking about trial and error! Often, the most important lessons in chess are learned when beginners try to achieve their goal using one method (their method) only to eventually realize that their method doesn’t work. Once the beginner realizes that his or way of thinking doesn’t work, they try the method taught to them by their instructor. This is something children have to go through, trying their way first. During this cycle of repetitive learning, teachers have to reinforce the reasons for using, for example, correct opening principles. This is done by showing students how those opening principles make their game better. If we show our students that centrally developed pawns and pieces control important squares, making it difficult for their opponent to launch attacks, we’re able to visually reinforce the concepts being taught. You cannot simply say, “do these things during the first ten moves of the game because I say so!” You have to show children visually why specific principles work. Don’t assume, because they’re young children, that they don’t need a real explanation when asking them to do something. I don’t like someone answering my question with “because I said so,” and neither do my students! My students are taught to question everything!

Children also learn by mimicking what they see and this can be a double edged sword. When showing young children a game by Paul Morphy in which he makes a seemingly wild sacrifice of his Queen, don’t be surprised if a few students sacrifice their Queens with disastrous results. A child might think, “Morphy sacrificed his Queen and won the game, so I’ll do the same thing and I’ll win my game!” Children learn by example, so if you present a game in which important pieces are sacrificed to win the game, don’t be surprised if your young students try to emulate what they’ve just seen on the demonstration board. It is best to use very simplified examples that demonstrate sound game principles rather than daring gambits and sacrifices, at least until your student’s knowledge of the game improves.

Parents should talk to the parents of other students in the chess class or club to get a better idea of where their children are in relation to other class or club members. More often than not, they’ll see that the majority of the class is on the same page. Parents should also take an active role in their child’s chess education. They should encourage their children by playing chess with them. If a parent doesn’t play chess or is too busy to play, that parent might consider investing in a chess playing program so their child always has an opponent. A fair portion of a child’s chess education lies in the hands of their parents. I offer free chess lessons to parents who want to play with their children but don’t know how!

Learning chess takes a long time. While adults can learn the game’s rules in a few hours, children are another matter altogether. In a perfect world, children would spend about nine months just learning how the pieces move. However, most chess classes have to condense that nine months into eight to ten classes per semester. Sometimes, a parent will say to me “my child is still making illegal moves, so I don’t think their learning the game correctly.” This translates to, “you’re not doing your job because my child is not playing as well as he or she should be playing, in my non chess playing opinion.” Rather than explain to the parent that young children can take up to 12 months to adequately learn the basic rules of the game and taking an 8-10 week class is too short a time frame for proper instruction, I ask them if they play chess with their children or, if they don’t play would they be willing to learn how to play. Sadly, many parents say that they’re too busy. Then there are the parents who are convinced that their child is the next Magnus Carlsen. This brings me to my final thought: Pressure

We’ve all witnessed the horror that is the all out sports parent. You know the type. They mentally brow beat their children into thinking that the game must be won at all costs and if the game was lost it was because their child wasn’t giving one hundred percent of themselves. Every game is a dire do or die situation. Life for adults is filled with too much pressure as it is. Let your child enjoy childhood. There will be plenty of time for them to stress out later on in life. One of my best students has parents who gently nurtured his interest in chess. They followed my instructional advice and didn’t put him under any pressure to perform. He is now one of the top players in his age group here in California and the Northwest. His parents met with me, took notes at all our meetings regarding their son’s improvement and played chess with him. His mother, who hadn’t played before, took lessons from me so she could help her son. Incidentally, his mother, two years later is a regular player on the local chess club scene here. They did all the right things and made a point to not put pressure on their son. Pressure can drain the passion for chess right out of even the most enthusiastic young player. So, remember what to realistically expect from your children when you enroll them in their first chess class or club. Be gentle and nurture their budding love for the game. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Space Point Count

You’re playing a game of chess, well into the opening, and you compare your position to that of your opponent. It appears that you both are equal, developmentally speaking. Your pawns and pieces are on active squares, yet your opponent quickly becomes the aggressor which leaves you having to defend rather than attack. You quickly lose the game wondering where you went wrong. If this has happened to you, let me ask you a question, did you tally up your space points (space point count) when considering a move? If you’re wondering what a space point count is, read further!

How much territory you control on the board is critical during all phases of the game. However, nowhere is it more important than in the opening. If you control a greater number of squares than your opponent, your opponent is going to be hard pressed to safely get his or her pawns and pieces into the game. After my students learn the games rules, we move on to the opening principles. We often start with the Italian Opening because it clearly demonstrates these basic principles in action. With any opening, you want to get your pawns and pieces to their most active squares before launching into any attacks. Often, one player will develop their pawns and pieces actively while their opponent develops their pawns and pieces more defensively. While a well seasoned player can develop defensively in such a way that makes it difficult for their opponent to whip up a strong attack, the beginner playing defensively tends to create a traffic jam of pawns and pieces that trap their King on it’s starting square.

If you’re attacking, your opponent is defending and if you’re defending your opponent is attacking. Eventually, you become one or the other during the course of the game! Two players can have somewhat equal positions and suddenly, one of those players gains greater control of the board! In fact, you can take a quick glance at a given board position and it can appear as if both players have equal control of the board. However, if you apply a space point count to the position, you’ll see that one player has a slight edge or greater control of the situation.

A space point count is simply a way to calculate who has greater territorial control of the board. To employ this idea, count the number of opposition squares your pawns and pieces control. Opposition squares are those squares on your opponent’s side of the board. If you’re playing the white pieces, the squares you’re going to count are those squares on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th ranks (squares on your opponent’s side of the board). If you’re playing the black pieces, you’re looking at opposition squares on the 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st ranks. In essence, you’re calculating the opposition space you control, thus the term space point count.

In the above example, the space count points for white are 23 while the space point counts for black are a mere 5. White has a much greater control of black’s side of the board while black is barely attacking anything on white’s side of the board. This is a spatial advantage and spatial advantages lead to winning games!

Beginners have a difficult time with the concept of overall spatial control. This occurs because beginners tend to focus on a specific area on the board, such as the center during the game’s opening. During the opening, the beginner will focus on d4, d5, e4 and e5, moving their pawns and pieces on or towards those squares. Of course, this is what we’ve learned to do during the opening. However, this essentially mechanical way of thinking can leave the beginner ill equipped, transitionally speaking, to enter into the middle game.

By moving pawns and pieces to squares that control the maximum number of opposition squares during the opening, you’ll be setting yourself up for a better middle game. Employing a space count can also help you decide on a specific move. Let’s say you’ve come up with three good moves you can make and now have the task of narrowing it down to the one move you’re going to make. How do you determine which move is best? I suggest doing a space point count for each of the three moves and see which one controls the greatest number of squares on the opposition’s side of the board. Of course, there are exceptions to this but the beginner should stick to the basics and keep it simple!

By counting the number of opposition squares a piece will control after it is moved, the beginner will see the entire board rather than an isolated area such as the center. Many of my beginning students have had major problems with hanging pieces, losing them because they weren’t looking at the entire board. After using the space point count system, those students greatly reduced the number of hung pieces because their board vision was better. Those same students were also able to start making a smoother transition into the middle game.

Try using the space point count method when considering a specific move. It comes in handy when you have a few moves to chose from that are close in their advantages. More often than not, you’ll find that one move garners you a bit more control of the position. However, you have to count those squares to truly know! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Try using the space point count system while playing through this game.

Hugh Patterson

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Focus

One form of chess I have all my students try, both young and old alike, is blindfold chess. Blindfold chess is simply a game of chess without a physical board and pieces. You play the game within your mind. At first, it seems an impossible task but, with some practice, you can improve quickly. Students ask me why I have them learn this form of chess and my answer is because it improves their concentration and ability to focus.

I use blindfold chess to help keep my own mind sharp and increase my ability to focus, an important mental skill to have at any age. As we get older, we tend to become forgetful and our ability to concentrate becomes more difficult. Just as your eyes lose their ability to focus on objects as you get older so too does your mind. Some of my younger students have asked me if blindfold chess involves simply memorizing the game’s moves. The answer is no. To play blindfold chess, you must see the chessboard clearly in the mind’s eye! You are playing a real game of chess, only you have no physical board or pieces. You have to remember the position of the pawns and pieces on the board. In short, you have to see the entire board within your mind!

When I teach blindfold chess to my students, we start with some exercises, mental stretches if you will, to get their brains warmed up. These exercises are designed to help students develop their ability to focus. The first exercise is a tour of the chess board. Close your eyes. Take ten deep slow breaths. Now, visualize a vinyl tournament chessboard as seen from above. The board has alpha-numeric symbols around it’s edges so you’ll be able to easily navigate around the board. In your mind, you can fly like a bird. You are now going to slowly fly clockwise around the four corners of the chessboard, naming each square along the board’s edges as well as the color of each square. Start with the square a1. Next, visualize the board’s center squares and the squares that immediately surrounding them. Say the name of each square out loud. Note each square’s color.

This first step is designed to get students to mentally focus on the landscape of the chessboard. Next we slowly add pawns and pieces to our imaginary chess board. However, before starting this exercise, I place a single pawn on a vinyl tournament chessboard and have my students take a close look at that pawn. The pawn they are looking at is one that has a large scratch running down it’s side. I use this particular pawn because its large scratch is easy to visualize. Then I have my students close their eyes and visualize the scratched pawn on e4. I ask them what square the scratch is facing. Is it facing towards e5 or perhaps f4? We repeat this exercise with a few more pieces (on different squares), all of which have specific physical flaws due to my pet pit bull who has a penchant for chewing on plastic chess pieces.

These two initial exercises are practiced daily for about two weeks. Because I work with beginning and intermediate students, I don’t push them too hard with regard to playing blindfold chess. I ask students to practice these visualization exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day. After this two week period, we move on to their first game of blindfold chess.

Rather than have students try to play a complete game of blindfold chess. I have them start by playing the first five moves of the game, stopping and then starting another five move game. This allows them to become comfortable with visualizing a full set of pawns and pieces in play. Student’s alternate between e and d pawn openings. Once they become comfortable with visualizing their first five moves (and those of their opponent), we add another two moves to each game. We continue this process until a full game of blindfold chess can be played. How long this takes depends on the student.

When students start playing through the first five moves of a game, I have them imagine what the board looks like from the pawn or piece’s viewpoint. I have them follow the path the pawn or piece travels. Are there any opposition pawns or pieces that can be captured? Are any of the opposition’s pawns or pieces able to capture the piece in question?

Interestingly, my students who learn blindfold chess tend to hang less pieces in their regular games because they are seeing the entire board and have a more intimate relationship with the pawns and pieces in play. I suspect the reason for this is because students are playing through the positions in their heads, thanks to the above exercises, while playing the physical game. This translates to them paying more attention to their game. Their memory also improves from such exercises which makes it easier to learn more complicated ideas. A win win situation!

Visualization goes a long way towards developing or improving focus and blindfold chess really helps to develop this skill. However, it takes time to be able to play a complete game. Slow and steady wins this race. Playing blindfold chess is especially helpful to those of us who are middle aged and prone to moments of forgetfulness. Try it out and see if it doesn’t help your memory and focus. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Dwelling on Lost Games

“Don’t dwell on the game you lost last week. Focus on the game you’re playing now!” Those were my words to one of my students before he started playing a game against an opponent he lost to the previous week. While we improve by learning from our losses, we can do more harm than good (to our game) if we dwell upon loss in the wrong way. Embrace a lost game as a chance to learn from your mistakes but remember not to overstay your welcome by simply dwelling on the loss. Otherwise, you may become slowly paralyzed by fear.

One of the hurdles that beginners face, both young and old, is surviving long enough to win a few games as a novice player. The human ego is fragile, especially in the young. Humans, again both young and old, have a habit of letting their egos do the talking when they excel at something. In junior chess you’ll often see a bit of bragging and gloating from the winner and a potential outpouring of tears from the loser (tears being proportional to the level of gloating and bragging). Simply put, kids don’t like to lose but often don’t understand the concept of having to put work into their game to avoid losing. One form of “work” that can have the greatest results is game analysis.

I teach students to use their losses as an opportunity to learn! When you lose a game its because something went wrong. Finding out where you went wrong can go a long way towards improving your game. For beginners, a single weak move can lead to disaster. The reason for this is because bad moves have a cumulative effect. Its the domino effect. If you make a bad move that weakens your position and your opponent makes a good move that strengthens their position, things will get worse before they get better (for you). Like history, if you fail to learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them. With that said, how does the beginner determine where they went wrong?

Game analysis is something players of all skill levels can do. Obviously, a highly rated player will be able to do some serious in-depth analysis that is beyond the technical scope of the beginner. However, the novice player can do some basic analysis that will help them determine where they went wrong. All they have to do is to ask a simple question after examining each move. That questions is “does this move adhere to sound game principles?”

Beginners have a terrible time with opening play. Therefore, when going through your opening moves, you should examine each move and see whether or not it adheres to the opening principles. Beginners should keep their checklist simple. The opening principles that should be applied are central pawn development, minor piece development to active squares and King safety. If the beginner is playing the white (or black) pieces and, on move one develops a flank pawn, such as those found on the “a” or “h” files, they’re not addressing control of the center and that’s where the problem starts. If minor pieces are being developed away from the board’s center, the problem is there, etc.

For the middle game, beginners should be looking at piece activity. Are your pieces on their most active squares? Hanging pieces are another problem beginners have. If you hang a piece, go back and play through the moves made prior to the loss of that piece. By going back a few moves you’ll often see that you got distracted doing something else, such as launching a premature attack or not looking at the entire board. If an exchange has left you down material, go back three moves and play it through. You’ll see things more clearly. The point is simple: Studying your games, using basic game principles as a guide, will lead to improvement!

Endgame questions should revolve around pawn structure and King activity. Can you get a pawn to its promotion square? Can your King stop the promotion of an opposition pawn. Keep the questions you ask yourself simple. As a beginner, you’re not going to be able to analyze games like Karpov so don’t even try.

Even using game analysis and the idea of learning from your losses, some players will still become paralyzed by loss. Sometimes we face losing streaks that leave us stuck in “fear mode.” The fear of losing overwhelms us, spreading the seeds of doubt within our minds. Here’s my advice:

If you’ve gone back, played through your lost games, discovered where you went wrong and worked at correcting the problem, you’re half way to playing winning chess. You’ve found the problem and addressed it. Does that mean you’ll win your next game? In a word, no. However, it does mean that you’ll play better chess. For example, let’s say that you’ve analyzed your last lost game and sit down to play another. You know where you went wrong in that previous game and should be able to avoid that initial problem this time around. Let’s say you lose this current game. While it may be a loss, you’ve made progress because of your previous game analysis. When you analyze this current game, you’ll notice that you did better this time around, not getting into the same trouble you got into before. This is progress in small steps. Small steps leads to solid improvement.

Eventually, you’ll start winning more games than you lose. However, you have to exercise patience. Chess requires work. If you put work into your game you’ll get better. Just remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take your time and celebrate the small improvements in your game. The overall war is won only by winning a series of smaller battles. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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